Nations race to contain Omicron variant as more cases detected

New cases of the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant continued to be detected around the world on Sunday, as nations tried to avoid a surge in infections by restricting travel and imposing new quarantine measures.

Omicron first emerged earlier this month in southern Africa. The World Health Organization designated it a “variant of concern” on Friday, saying it appeared to be able to reinfect patients and that it displayed mutations previously associated with diminished vaccine efficacy and higher transmissibility.

Both findings have yet to be confirmed, and it is also not yet known whether the variant alters the severity of Covid.

The US, the European Union, the UK, Australia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and others have all limited travel or ordered quarantines on individuals travelling to and from southern Africa, while others, such as Singapore and India, signalled over the weekend that they were reviewing restrictions. Switzerland has also restricted travel to non-African nations where cases have been detected.

Israel became the first country to close its borders to foreigners, with officials previously signalling they were on the verge of declaring a state of emergency. At least one case has been confirmed and several more are suspected. Returning travellers will be forced to quarantine, and the government has deployed the army and domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet to monitor them.

“Everyone is tired of life in the shadow of the coronavirus,” said prime minister Naftali Bennett. “I hear what people are saying to me: ‘We have just emerged from the Delta strain and now a new strain has arrived?’ It is not easy but it is reality.”

Anthony Fauci, the US chief medical adviser, said the variant’s mutations were “troublesome”.

“[Omicron] has the capability of transmitting rapidly,” he told NBC. “That’s the thing that’s causing us now to be concerned but also to put the pressure on ourselves now to do something about our preparation for this.”

Fauci cautioned that in the longer term the US “certainly [was] not going to eradicate” Covid-19, but that it was within “our own grasp” to coexist with the virus if the “overwhelming majority of the population [is] vaccinated and boosted”. No cases had yet been detected, but he said that the new variant could already be present in the US.

European countries were racing to contain the Omicron variant amid a resurgence of cases caused by the earlier Delta variant. Dutch health minister Hugo de Jonge on Sunday said 13 Omicron cases were found among 61 passengers who tested positive for the virus on two flights from South Africa to Amsterdam on Friday. All positive passengers have been quarantined in hotels for seven days; de Jonge said it was “conceivable” that more Omicron cases were present in the country.

The Netherlands has imposed one of the EU’s most stringent lockdown restrictions over the past two weeks, with non-essential shops shutting at 5pm and quarantine imposed on people returning from high-risk areas.

A third case has been identified in the UK, the UK Health Security Agency confirmed on Sunday, and dozens more are being treated as suspected cases, people familiar with the matter have told the Financial Times. The UK has convened a meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday.

Calls for renewed lockdowns were growing louder in Germany after the national academy of sciences, Leopoldina, published a paper advising the government to introduce restrictions on public and private gatherings, including for the vaccinated. Two cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in the southern state of Bavaria.

In an interview with Bild am Sonntag, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on citizens to prevent a German lockdown by voluntarily restricting their contact with others.

The WHO has called for borders to remain open and for “balance” in the global response to the variant, saying countries should strategically deploy their testing and sequencing capabilities. The Omicron variant can be detected by proxy on routine PCR tests, as it misses a gene — S — that Alpha, a previous variant, also lacks. Genomic sequencing is needed to confirm its presence.

Since coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, more than 261m people have been infected globally, and at least 5.1m have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Additional reporting by Stefania Palma, Samer Al-Atrush, Christian Davies and James Shotter

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